Obama’s Cuban Dilemma
One of the most painful things about being a citizen of the United States of America over the past several decades has been living aboard a political ship that is constantly listing to the right even as it sinks. Just when you think it can’t get worse, it does, and our foreign policy, which was never much good to begin with, grows ever more appallingly belligerent. This means that any course correction from aggressive belligerence, no matter how small, is greeted as remarkable change, even when it leaves you worse off than when you started. The mass media have a lot to do with it of course, framing the issues for a general public that is poorly educated and therefore ignorant by design.
That’s how you arrive at a change in foreign policy such as the one announced on Monday by the Obama White House, which allows Cuban Americans with blood relatives in Cuba to travel there without restriction, a minute change that was greeted with the customary media frenzy. While the rest of us non-Cuban Americans are free to visit the vilified Pyongyang or Tehran instead, Havana remains legally off limits. The guidelines as set out by the Office of Foreign Assets Control are quite clear on the matter – a common Cuban ancestor is necessary in order to qualify for licensed travel. And so, my son can now apply for and receive permission to visit his Cuban grandmother, aunts, uncles and first cousins, but I, his mother, cannot legally go with him. This is somewhat problematic, considering that he’s only three years old.
It wasn’t this way before Bush Jr. moved the goalposts for Cuban travel off the charts. Before Bush, U.S. citizens related to Cubans through marriage were allowed to visit Cuba, and as I recall, there were few if any limits on the frequency or duration of those visits. Maybe we just weren’t paying attention. I do remember that you could even bring back Cuban cigars and some excellent Cuban rum, and U.S. customs officials could only watch with envy. No touching! But Bush and his neanderthal Miami friends took a sledgehammer to everything having to do with Cuba, in the most mean-spirited way. Customs began to confiscate the coveted rum and cigars (they always have the last laugh), and four pounds was the maximum legal limit imposed on packages mailed to Cuba (never mind that I could ship a washing machine to Syria if I were so inclined). By the way, those packages had better not contain any seeds! Or soap-making equipment. Because everyone knows that if Cubans can plant their own tomatoes or make their own soap, then…then what? It was total nonsense cooked up by people with a fragile hold on reason.
Why then, is it so hard to completely roll back, even only to where we were before? Why does Obama tread so carefully, peeling back only the most absurd things, like the prohibition on soap-making equipment and seeds, while leaving Bush’s restrictions on the civil liberties of ordinary U.S. citizens untouched? I have some ideas about that, but obviously, for starters, there’s a certain agreement between the Bush regime and the Obama one, even on absurdities. And why the sudden rush to switch on the dormant undersea telecom cable between the U.S. and Cuba, after so many years of forcing Cuba to purchase costly and inadequate Internet bandwidth via satellite? It wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that Venezuela and Cuba were about to run away with that monopoly, through the undersea cable that’ll finally be in place between Venezuela and Santiago de Cuba next year? Or would it? Could the timid changes to travel for one segment of the population have been meant to distract from the more substantive effort to extend the tentacles of the U.S. telecom oligopolies? Or make an offer that Cuba would probably refuse?
Remember that just two short years ago, Chávez sensibly reached the conclusion that telecom services are basically essential ones that should not be held hostage to poor service and unconscionable profits, and nationalized Venezuela’s telecom company at a price that even Verizon found fair. Telecom has a very touchy history in Cuba and it struck me just how sensitive the issue is when I was there last and noticed the plaque on the central telecom office in Havana, nationalizing the service in the wake of the triumphant revolution, just a few short years to the day after the previous corrupt Cuban government had granted ITT an exclusive monopoly. The plaque explains the double insult of granting this monopoly on the same date when Cubans fighting for their freedom had been slaughtered in a bloody massacre, and lists each of their names in a permanent memorial. I think it’s unlikely that U.S. telecom will be welcomed back, and certainly not on the rapacious terms to which they’re accustomed.
As to the larger question, and the only one that really matters, that of the U.S. blockade of Cuba, after Obama’s announcement fairly little doubt remains. There’s no appetite whatsoever to lift it, probably for a variety of reasons that aren’t too hard to guess, and the changes in U.S. policy that were hurriedly announced this week are mainly an attempt to change the subject in advance of the Summit of the Americas scheduled for the coming weekend in Trinidad and Tobago. It buys some time. The new indictment of the terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, previously sheltered by the Bush regime, is far more meaningful in comparison, but is still not a substitute for substantive movement on the blockade. And the blockade will still be there, hanging in the air at Port of Spain, like a persistent and unwelcome guest. Obama can continue to ignore it, continue to try to change the subject, even try to defuse the criticism with his concrete evidence of change, as unsubstantial and cynical as it may be, but after all this time, Cuba is less isolated than ever. Latin America’s in no mood to put up with the shunning any longer. Movement on the blockade could still happen, incrementally, over time. But judging by the diffidence of this week’s White House announcement, don’t hold your breath.